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Mozilla Thunderbird 3.0: New calendar, better search

The newly named Mozilla Messaging subsidiary plans to ship Thunderbird 3.0 by the end of the year with comprehensive search abilities and the Lightning calendar built in.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read

A new Mozilla Foundation effort to improve its Thunderbird open-source e-mail software now has an official name--and its first public goals.

Thunderbird 3.0 is due to ship by the end of the year with a more comprehensive search feature and official integration of the Lightning calendar add-on, said David Ascher, chief executive of the newly named Mozilla Messaging subsidiary. The first alpha release will come sooner, though, for those who want to test the software.

"I'm expecting we'll have some public releases probably within three months," Ascher said.

Mozilla is best known for its success with the Firefox browser, which has dented Microsoft Internet Explorer's dominance and sparked programmers to build a rich selection of extensions. Now the group is trying to apply the formula to e-mail software. Even though many rely on Web-based services for the chore, e-mail software is still widely used, and Thunderbird could open another major beachhead for open-source software in mainstream computing.

Although Mozilla Messaging's priority is to produce good software, not specifically to dethrone Microsoft's dominant Outlook software, the new calendar ability makes Thunderbird a more viable competitor, particularly in corporate environments.

Adding a third Mozilla group can be confusing, so let me spell out the distinctions for those of you who haven't scrutinized every development in the last 10 years since Netscape and its acquirer, AOL, spun off the Mozilla project in 1998. The Mozilla Foundation, a not-for-profit group, is in charge overall; for-profit subsidiaries Mozilla Corp. and Mozilla Messaging run the Web browser and e-mail projects, respectively.

Mozilla Messaging also has named a three-person board of directors: Ascher; Chris Beard, general manager of Mozilla Labs; and Marten Mickos, CEO of MySQL, the open-source database company Sun Microsystems has just agreed to acquire for about $1 billion. More are likely to be added later as the organization grows, Ascher said.

The organization has only five or six employees, he said, but others contribute, too, including Mozilla Corp.'s Firefox engineers, Sun's employees working full-time on Lightning, and Qualcomm programmers moving their Eudora software to a Thunderbird base. "You quickly get to dozens of developers and hundreds of testers," he said.

Messaging beyond e-mail
Mozilla Messaging isn't just about e-mail. The new name reflects some of the subsidiary's ambitions.

Thunderbird already can handle RSS feeds and newsgroups, but ultimately, Ascher wants Mozilla Messaging's software to work with instant messaging, mobile phone text messaging, and Web sites such as Facebook or Flickr that have their own e-mail systems.

Although many of those sites don't open up their internal e-mail systems, at least at present, tightly integrating over the Web could sidestep that barrier. "Because we're built on the same platform as Firefox, we can use Web sites quite easily," Ascher said.

Ascher hopes the new Thunderbird will begin paving the way for such possibilities, in part by enabling a wide range of experimentation.

"There's a lot of engineering work that may not show its face in 3.0 but that will make it possible for other people to build extensions that plug into Thunderbird 3," Ascher said.

Another fruitful avenue for experimentation is spam filtering and antiphishing security, he added. Firefox has a blacklist security feature that attempts to protect people from phishing e-mails that try to trick recipients into entering passwords or other sensitive information into bogus Web sites. "It's possible to leverage technology in Firefox 3 to detect phishing and incorporate it into Thunderbird," Ascher said.

For instant messaging software, Ascher is looking at XMPP, the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol used by Jabber and Google Talk. "That kind of technology might make its way into Thunderbird someday," he said.

Improving search--but not with ads
Nearer-term priorities, though, are improving Thunderbird 2.0's search, adding calendar abilities, and making Thunderbird easier to use, Ascher said.

"What we're trying to do with Thunderbird 3 is make a better, more integrated search experience--search that spans e-mail, calendar, address books (and) maybe someday IM conversations," he said.

Integrating search has proved lucrative: Google paid Mozilla $66.8 million in 2006 for making Google the default home page and search-box option. But adding that sort of search to e-mail isn't on the Thunderbird to-do list.

"When people search (e-mail), they tend to be searching for information, not for things to buy. It's not a great environment to be throwing ads in front of people," Ascher said.

Revenue, in fact, isn't even on the current worry list.

"I'm deferring the revenue model issues for a while," Ascher said. The first priority will be to produce good software. "The model used for Firefox was not to generate something that would generate revenue, it was to create the best browser possible. I'm following that recipe again."